Giving power to the paddle
Some North Texas school districts are holding fast to corporal punishment, but critics say they're out of whack
By Kim Breem and Kathy A. Goolsby
Dallas Morning News, August 20, 2006

Photo: Tom Fox/DMN

After getting parents' consent, Everman Junior High principal Anthony Price instituted paddling last year. "The building is a pleasure to work in now," he says.

After getting parents' consent, Everman Junior High principal Anthony Price instituted paddling last year. "The building is a pleasure to work in now," he says. EVERMAN A sign stuck to the principal's desk outlaws whining. A blue jar on a nearby shelf claims to hold the ashes of problem students.

But it's the custom-made, arm-length pine paddle that delivers the old-school discipline that Anthony Price says has helped turn his junior high school around.

He stands behind a practice headed toward extinction.

Most local students returning to school this month will not face corporal punishment. But in a time when child psychologists, Dr. Phil and even Supernanny tout timeouts and tenderness, a dwindling number of holdout school districts continue to believe in the power of the paddle.

Some spank their students for missing homework, others for untucked shirttails. They have the support of the state Legislature and their communities and say that despite research to the contrary, they're helping a generation that needs some old-fashioned remedy.

"We, as Americans, have let our school system get a little bit out of control," Mr. Price said. "I love children, but when I see how many are going astray, it's heartbreaking. ... Corporal punishment adds just one small fear factor back into the system."

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Graphic: Paddling policies in area school districts

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Area educators used corporal punishment to discipline nearly 3,000 students last year, mostly in a half dozen small or high-minority districts, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News.

The Dallas school district became one of the last large urban districts in the country to ban corporal punishment, in 2005. Other local districts including Plano and Frisco have recently wiped long-unused policies from the books.

Opponents of paddling say that it's hurtful and unfairly targets minority and poor children, but that thankfully it's fallen out of favor with most schools.

"It's a dead and dying practice," said Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a nonprofit organization based in Ohio that opposes corporal punishment.

"There is no research to support it. ... Children learn best when they are in a safe and supportive learning environment, not in an environment of fear."

Seeing a change

Mr. Price arrived in Everman, a small, predominantly black and Hispanic district outside of Fort Worth, three years ago.

Administrators warned him of out-of-control students and parents, low teacher morale and lousy test scores.

"We had teachers being cursed out, teachers being threatened, kids going to class and not doing anything but still expecting to pass," he said.

He and his staff at Everman Junior High School enlisted both modern and old-school punishments push-ups, writing assignments tailored to different offenses, night school, parent shadowing in class, and in-school and out-of-school suspensions.

Mr. Price said parents approached him as he cheered at football and basketball games.

"I sure wish you could just bust his butt and send him to class," Mr. Price recalled hearing more than once. Coming from Arlington schools, where paddling is prohibited, he was surprised to learn it was an option under Everman's policy.

"I am a fan of corporal punishment, only because I received it, and I know how it can change a person's attitude when you're on the receiving end," said Mr. Price, a man with an intimidating build but a genuine, kind and hearty laugh. "There is a difference between abuse and correction."

A paddle was not easy to find, so he placed a special order with a cabinetmaker and outfitted a few staff members. They delivered a total of 535 paddlings or "pops," as they call them to about 150 students last year. Parents consented first.

"There is a respect level in our building I will compare to any school anywhere now," he said. "The building is a pleasure to work in now. Parents and the students both understand that no disruption of the learning will be tolerated."

Assistant Superintendent James Melton said he has delivered many paddlings in his 40 years as an educator.

He once ran into a former student who had served prison time. Mr. Melton considered crossing the street to avoid him.

"He asked me if I'd shake hands with him," Mr. Melton recalled of the chance meeting 30 years ago. "He said, 'I just want you to know that if as many people had been as firm with me as you were, I might not have gone where I went.' "

Mr. Melton paused. "I still get emotional about it," he said.

The highest rate

The long, thin paddle in Jeremy Harpole's office looks glossy and new despite the busy schedule it kept last year. The Prosper High School assistant principal said 270 students or about half of the school were paddled a total of about 500 times last year.

The high school is the only campus in Collin County's small but fast-growing Prosper district that uses corporal punishment. Still, it uses it enough to give the district what could be the highest rate of students disciplined by corporal punishment in the Dallas area: about 15 percent.

"You can either get a detention or get what we call swats," Mr. Harpole said. "We give detentions out kind of like candy here."

Expectations are high, he said, and so are the rewards.

"Our hallways are spick-and-span. The kids look well, dress well, they act well."

But he expects corporal punishment will decline sharply this year as the school substitutes other punishments. Friday Night Reflection, a new mega-detention, will start this year.

"I don't have time in my schedule to constantly give swats all day long," he said, joking that he'd need arm surgery. He said outsiders moving to Prosper do not balk at the corporal punishment policy.

"Honestly, I just enrolled three different students," he said, including a student from Illinois and another from California. "I always tell new enrollees we do give corporal punishment. All three parents said, 'Yippee!' No lie."

Kayla Romine, 17, has chosen the paddle for punishment many times during high school, often for showing up late for class.

"It doesn't hurt at all," Kayla said. It's not an effective deterrent, either, she said. "It's just an easy way out of having to stay after school."

The swats seem stronger on the boys, said Kayla's friend, Marty Scott. Marty said he's been left sore enough that he wanted to cry. But he still prefers paddling. He, too, has taken many swats, mostly for skipping homework.

High-minority district

Area school districts that used corporal punishment last year generally fell into two categories rural like Prosper or high-minority like Everman and Grand Prairie.

The Grand Prairie school district, which is primarily Hispanic, reported the highest number of students disciplined by corporal punishment in the Dallas area last school year 1,260. Those students received 1,906 paddlings, about a third more than the year before.

More than half of last year's paddlings happened at South Grand Prairie High School's Ninth Grade Center, where 589 students, 63 percent of the student body, received corporal punishment 1,000 times.

"Every time a child comes to the office, we contact the parent, and if they request corporal punishment, then we do it," said principal Vicki Villarreal. "We don't just use it carte blanche."

But when students move next door to the 10th grade at South Grand Prairie High School, corporal punishment isn't an option. Former principal Roy Garcia banned it in 2003, because he didn't think it was effective.

"I felt there were other things we could do to change behavior, such as focus more on relationships between students and teachers," said Mr. Garcia, now an assistant superintendent in Cypress-Fairbanks ISD near Houston.

Mr. Garcia said abolishing corporal punishment created a better academic atmosphere, and students and staff seemed to treat each other with more respect. Grand Prairie principals aren't the only people with differing philosophies. Outgoing Superintendent David Barbosa is opposed to corporal punishment on any campus.

"I think if a youngster is in need of that kind of punishment, it is best administered by the parents, who have the primary care and responsibility of the child," he said. "There are other ways to modify a student's behavior."

But all seven school board members support keeping the option.

Nine-year-old Tyler Hulsey was paddled once for disruptive behavior in kindergarten.

"We'd tried everything, from taking away her recess to punishing her at home, so this was a last resort," said her mother, Danni Hulsey. "It was two swats, and I was in the room when she got them. It made a very big difference in her behavior."

Accepted in the South

Most school districts do not paddle for philosophical reasons, fear of lawsuits and waning parental support. The majority of the holdouts are in the South.

New Jersey was the first state to ban paddling, in 1867. In 2005, Pennsylvania became the 28th. That year the Texas Legislature reaffirmed its support for corporal punishment. A bill that would have ended it in schools never left committee.

"It is completely legally defensible," said Mari McGowan, an attorney with Abernathy, Roeder, Boyd and Joplin, which represents 17 Dallas-area districts, many in Collin County.

But districts don't want to spend money in court even if they would probably win, she said. "We generally advise not to include corporal punishment because of the exposure to potential lawsuits."

About half of her client districts, including Prosper, keep it on the books, but most don't use it. Those that do share parental support and tight guidelines. Nearly all districts allow parents to opt out.

"It's not controversial in those communities whatsoever," she said. "They're smaller communities. Everyone knows everyone."

Just four students were paddled in Irving last year.

"If I were a principal today, I wouldn't use it at all," said Superintendent Jack Singley, who worries about lawsuits. "My advice to them is, you're doing this at your own risk."

Sociologists generally argue against all corporal punishment. Psychologists are split, said Marjorie Lindner Gunnoe, a psychologist who has researched corporal punishment. But they all largely agree, it should not happen in schools.

Experts who support spanking at home say it should not be used on older children, Dr. Gunnoe said.

"Pretty much nobody says past the age of 7," she said.

As children age, she said, they see the adults who hit them more as peers. If an older child is hit by a parent, he might think, "If you can hit me, why can't I hit him?"

Hundreds of area students paddled last year were middle and high school students.

Another perspective

Saudia Shaheed, 28, still remembers getting paddled by her beloved kindergarten teacher for writing on a desk. What stands out most is that she was falsely accused. Her West Texas teacher gathered classmates in a circle to watch as she paddled misbehaving students.

Her son attends third grade in the Plano school district, which does not allow paddling.

If paddling were an option, Ms. Shaheed would be opposed. As a parent, she can't imagine someone else spanking her son. As a former Dallas teacher, she couldn't imagine paddling someone else's child.

Her mother spanked, but Ms. Shaheed does not.

"I just remember how it feels, and I wouldn't want him to feel that way," she said.

She's not surprised that some Texas schools still paddle.

"I think we still have a lot of traditional Southern ideas," she said. "We're slow to catch on to the not-so-traditional ways of handling children."

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Area districts that reported using corporal punishment in the 2005-06 school year, ranked by percentage of total school enrollment paddled.

14.75% -- Prosper ISD, Collin County

6.14% -- Blue Ridge ISD, Collin County

5.44% -- DeSoto ISD, Dallas County

5.26% -- Grand Prairie ISD, Dallas County

5.13%-- Everman ISD, Tarrant County This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. This text is invisible on the page, but this text is affected by the invisible item's flow. More headlines...


See related:
Letter to Dallas Morning News re: "Giving power to the paddle"
By Jordan Riak, August 22, 2006

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